Showing posts with label whole class instruction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label whole class instruction. Show all posts

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making Whole Class Work More Effective

          Recently, I wrote about the quandary of grouping. Small group instruction supports greater student engagement, higher amounts of interaction, greater opportunity for teacher observation, and more student learning. However, the benefits of small group are balanced by the relative ineffectiveness of most seatwork activities. Subtracting the downside of working on one's own away from the teacher from the clear benefits of small group teaching, one ends up with little advantage to all of the effort of orchestrating the small-group oriented classroom.
          Despite this, the benefits of small group teaching is so obvious, it is not uncommon for coaches and supervisors to promote a lot of small group work in spite of its ultimate lack of benefit.

          While arguing to keep the small group-teaching arrow in my quiver, I suggested that one of the best things we could do as teachers was to work on our large-group teaching skills. The focus of this has to be, not on organizing our classes in particular ways, but in ensuring that all of our students learn as much as possible. 

So what kinds of things can one do to make large group or whole class teaching more effective? In other words, how can you maintain the efficiency of whole-class teaching, while grabbing the same benefits one gets from small-group work?

1.     Get close to the kids
            In small-group work, teachers command greater attention and involvement partly by being so close. Small groups are often arrayed around the teacher or pulled together at a single table. But with whole-class work, the teacher may as well be on the Moon. Perching yourself at the desk or whiteboard puts you in a different orbit than the kids. No eye contact with the individual students, or no chance that you’ll reach out and touch them; no wonder we lose attention. Set up your classroom so that you can move easily among the students and can reach them without a lot of rigmarole. Place students where you want them to be to support high attention (no Billy cannot sit where he wants).

2.     Ask questions first and assign them to students later
          One way of maximizing attention is to ask your questions first, and then call on the student who is to answer. Even put a bit of pause in between the question and the assignment. The point of the question is rarely to get one student thinking, but to get the whole class to reflect on the problem. When a teacher says, “Johnny, why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?,” Johnny will think about it, but most of the other kids will take a pass. When she says, “Why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?.... Johnny?” everybody has to think about it because they can’t be sure who'll get called. 

3.     Focus on teaching, not putting on a show
          Many of us grew up watching Phil Donahue and Oprah. We know how to run a Q&A discussion with a studio audience because we have seen it so often. The tempo moves along, there aren’t long pauses or digressions, and at the end the pertinent info has been covered. But what’s good TV would be lousy teaching. The idea that you’re the emcee presenting information—even with some audience participation, is the wrong mindset. You may be teaching a group of 30 students in a whole class setting, but you have to think of them as 30 individuals, not one group. Your job is to maximize participation for the students while increasing your opportunity to monitor individual progress.

4    Maximize student response.
                 Too often in whole-class work the teacher asks a question, then calls on a child to answer. There are many better schemes for this that allow more student thinking and response, such as “think-pair-share.” Here the teacher asks a question, but has the kids talking it over with each other before answering (the smallest configuration for this can be pairs, but the pairs can then talk to other pairs, and other schemes make sense as well). This increases the degree to which everyone thinks about the question and tries to figure out an answer.

               Another popular approach is the multiple-response card. With simple yes-no tasks, thumbs up-thumbs down may be sufficient. Thus, if the teacher is doing a phonological awareness activity, she may have the students respond with thumbs up if a pair of words start or end with the same sound, and a thumbs down otherwise. For more complex responses, cards may be better. For example, the students might have a card for each character in a story, and the teacher can then ask questions like, Who packed the picnic basket? Who was supposed to take the basket to grandmother? Who was lurking in the woods? And, all the students then hold up the cards that reveal the answer.

                A third way, not used enough in my opinion, is the written answer. Teachers can ask any kind of question, and have everyone write an answer to the question. The oral responses that follow tend to be longer and more involved than what kids come up with orally. The written record is useful here because it allows teachers to check to see who answered the question well, the quality of the reasoning, and can take them back into the text to figure out the discrepancies.

5    Teach groups in whole class—teaching in a fishbowl
            Sometimes you can increase the involvement of particular students even though you are working in whole class. Let’s say everyone has been asked to read Chapter 6 of the social studies book, and now the class is going to discuss. The teacher might select 5-8 students who she wants to be the primary discussants this time. These students may sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom and everyone else will be arrayed around them. The teacher leads the discussion with her questions and challenges, and the students in the inner circle answer and talk about the ideas. The students on the outside observe, participate in the discussion if the inner group is stuck, and perhaps write answers to the same questions. Through careful selection, the teacher is able to maximize the amount of participation of quiet students or those who usually get shut out of the discussions by being too slow.

6    Be strategic in calling on students 
          It can be difficult to manage the calling on students. Certain students always seem to have an answer, and are quick to respond. This shuts out others who need to explore their thinking and who would benefit from teacher follow up. Teachers can do what football coaches do, which is plan their plays ahead of time, changing up the routine only if the situation changes. Thus, a teacher might, during planning, decide not just what to ask, but who she wants to hear from. That means if certain students are struggling to give longer answers or sufficient explanation, the teacher can be ready to initiate and guide them through some scaffolded work within the context of the whole class lesson. In other cases, more randomized calling (in which everyone has an equal chance) might make sense; this is easily accomplished with the tongue-depressor routine, in which all the student names are on tongue depressors and the teacher just pulls sticks out of the can as she needs a response or explanation.

7    Whole class can be more than lecture or Q&A
          Instead of using worksheets as “shut up sheets” (thanks, Vicki Gibson), use these tasks to engage everyone within the class in an interactive activity. For example, let’s say the task is finding text evidence. The worksheet includes assertions based on the text, and the students have to locate information from the text that supports the assertion. Kids could go off and do that on their own or they could do it in separate small group activities with teacher scaffolding, but that kind of task could be done most efficiently with teacher participation in the whole class. The teacher needs to observe how the students go about the task—maybe even taking notes on who just started reading and who went to particular parts of the text, who's copying, who's paraphrasing, and so on. At any point, the teacher might stop the class and ask about the strategies being used and might provide some guidance for proceeding more effectively.

            Remember, even in whole class teaching, you want students to pay attention; you want to get as many students to respond and participate as possible (without losing everyone else’s attention); you want maximum possibility of identifying when problems and misunderstandings occur so that you can scaffold, explain, and guide students to solve the problem. Structure whole group lessons in those ways, and then follow up in smaller groups (and even individually) to ensure success with what is being taught.

My recent presentation on improving test performance:

My recent presentation on teaching with challenging text:

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

To Group or Not to Group-- That is the question

A teacher’s (thoughtful) questions: 
We’re being told to spend about 30 minutes delivering whole group instruction and then spend the next 60 minutes meeting with small groups of students while the other students work in literacy stations to practice skills previously taught either independently or in partners/groups.  This framework seemed helpful because when I had a class of 27 students, I needed a structure for how to be able to meet with more than one small group per day and by sending students to independently practice skills in stations, I was then freed up to meet with 2 -3 small groups throughout the day.  In the past, I had time to meet only with one group per day and it was always my strugglers, which meant my higher students never got a piece of me. Since then and when we went to 60 minutes of either SG or literacy stations, I’ve been able to actually meet with my higher ability students a couple of times per week and in general I meet with about 15 students in that 60 minute frame versus 5 as in the past.  But, after reading your posts, I’m not really sure what the structure of my 90 min. reading block should look like.  And, I still have issues and don’t know if what I’m doing is best because I have questions such as…

1.  Is it really fair that on some days students in my class spend 60 minutes during the reading block without a teacher?  This is what literacy stations did to some of my students and I’m not sure I felt it was best.

2. How do I meet the demands of needing to work with several students in smaller groups throughout the day if I don’t have literacy stations going for a big chunk of the time?

3.  When I send students to literacy stations, do they work with text that is at their level if they are by themselves?  Do I chose more complex texts if they are working with a partner?  

Any good teacher knows that not everything fits into a nice and pretty box, and that we are constantly adjusting the structure of our classroom depending on the progress towards our learning goals and the feedback from our students.  Yet…as teachers we still want to know what does this really look like…what does a typical 90-minute reading block look like?

Shanahan’s (clever) response: 
To group or not to group, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the
slings and arrows of whole class instruction, 
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by small group teaching, end them?

There must be something in the water. This is the third time in a week that folks have asked me about whole class/small group instruction.

My first response is that I fully appreciate your situation. I definitely agree that teachers need some kind of general plan to follow when it comes to planning and implementing instruction. You simply cannot make everything up every day, so having some set time allotments makes sense (David Letterman always had his Top Ten List—and probably for the same reasons you have whole class and small group instruction—though I assume your teaching isn’t as funny). Teaching (like doctoring, engineering, lawyering, presidenting and other work verbs) is difficult and the Nobel Prize winner, Herb Simon, showed why, when engaged in challenging tasks, it is beneficial to routinize. So, I’ll give you an A+ in trying to develop a schema to work within day to day.

But then I balk. As much as I like the idea of a somewhat consistent daily routine, I’m not so comfortable in building such a routine around activities and organizational structures. It makes me uncomfortable. I could imagine you meeting the structure, but not improving students’ literacy performance. I suspect that you are being told to maximize small group teaching because (whoever is promoting that) believes that students make the greatest learning progress in small groups and so wants the majority of the time there. However, I think that is a misinterpretation. I would argue for organizing your time around your goals rather than around grouping plans (within the times that you establish, you can use a variety of grouping plans—again, selected on the basis of what would promote your goals).

The National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) reported that phonological awareness and phonics instruction were effective, but that small group instruction of these skills was associated with higher effect sizes than those obtained either with whole class or individual lesson delivery. Other studies support the conclusion that small group reading instruction leads to relatively more learning than whole class teaching (Slavin, 1993; Slavin, Lake, Chambers, Cheung, & Davis, 2010).

When the comparison is of the effectiveness of small group versus whole class reading lessons, the choice is clear: small group teaching is better. However, that is a false comparison and isn’t the actual choice facing most classroom teachers.

Instructional planning requires a consideration of the efficiency of instruction and the learning benefits from the overall instructional program. Sorenson and Hallinan (1986), in a longitudinal study of 47 classes, found the superiority of small group teaching over whole class teaching, but they also found this advantage to be dissipated by the relatively low amounts of learning obtained during the independent seat work activities that students were obliged to engage in while their classmates received small group instruction. Similarly, in a “beat the odds” study, it was found that small group teaching was superior only when the lessons were taught by multiple teachers, not when individual teachers were delivering the lessons while the other children did seat work (Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 2002). Big learning benefits were evident from the small group teaching, but so little growth occurs when students are working on their own that the overall comparison of whole class and small group teaching is a wash.

Given that learning is so much better in small groups than large groups, it is no wonder that your principal, reading coach, or curriculum director may promote it. However, there is a reason why you feel guilty about the groups you can’t get to—those children are at a clear disadvantage not only when compared with small group instruction, but with whole class teaching. 

I would organize my day around what I need to accomplish with the students: they need to learn to decode and encode text accurately, they need to learn to read text fluently, they need to learn to comprehend and learn from text, and they need to learn to compose text. Devote time to each of those goals and try to figure out the most powerful way to reach each one. With decoding that might be whole class introduction of skills, with small group and individual follow up to ensure that they get it (the small group work could be practice, but it could be reteaching). Fluency might best be organized in pairs with the teacher moving among these pairs. Reading comprehension may be a mix of whole class and small group teaching depending on what you are dealing with. Writing might be whole class with some individual follow up, and so on. The point is moving towards your goals, not getting kids into particular instructional configurations.

That approach requires that you focus heavily on whole class teaching, with small group and individual instruction aimed at reinforcing, extending, and ensuring that the whole class lessons stick. That should give you a good mix of efficiency and effectiveness. The better you are at delivering those whole class lessons, the less small group teaching that you’ll need. But that means you have to figure out how to make it possible for more students to respond in the whole class (as they do in small group) and for you to observe better, so that you can see problems (as you can in small groups).

I think you need a judicious mix of whole class, small group, and individual teaching, but your organization should focus on what is being taught rather than how it is being taught..

Slavin, R. E. (1993). Ability grouping in the middle grades: Achievement effects and alternatives. The Elementary School Journal, 93, 535-552.

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C., Chambers, B., Cheung, A., & Davis, S. (2010). Effective reading programs for the elementary grades: A best-evidence synthesis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.

Sørenson, A.A.B. (1970). Organizational differentiation of students and educational opportunity. Sociology of Education, 43, 355-376.

Sørenson, A. B., & Hallinan, M. T. (1986). Effects of ability grouping on growth in academic achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 23, 519-542.

Taylor, B.M., P.D. Pearson, Clark, K., & Walpole, S. (2002). Effective schools and accomplished teachers: Lessons about primary-grade reading instruction in low-income schools. In B.M. Taylor & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Teaching reading (pp. 3-72). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.